Business ties complicate Muslim states’ response to Rohingya

September 21, 2017

FILE- In this Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, Muslim protesters shout slogans as they hold posters of Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Wirathu, the leader of Myanmar's nationalist Buddhist monks during a rally against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, in Jakarta, Indonesia. When Rohingya Muslims fled persecution and slaughter in Myanmar in past decades, tens of thousands found refuge in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — When Rohingya Muslims fled persecution and slaughter in Myanmar in past decades, tens of thousands found refuge in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites. This time around, Muslim leaders from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan have offered little more than condemnation and urgently needed humanitarian aid.

The lack of a stronger response by Muslim-majority countries partly comes down to their lucrative business interests in Southeast Asia, experts say. Much of the Middle East is also buckling under its own refugee crisis sparked by years of upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

More than 500,000 people — roughly half the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar — have fled to neighboring Bangladesh over the past year, mostly in the last month. The United Nations human rights chief has described Myanmar’s military crackdown and allied Buddhist mob attacks as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Saudi Arabia is already home to around a quarter-million Burmese people who took refuge in the kingdom under the late King Faisal in the 1960s. The kingdom pledged $15 million in aid to the Rohingya this week.

As the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia competes with Russia to be China’s top crude supplier. Expanding its footprint there requires Myanmar’s help.

A recently opened pipeline running through Myanmar , also known as Burma, carries oil from Arab countries and the Caucuses to China’s landlocked Yunnan Province. The 771-kilometer (479-mile) pipeline starts at the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, from where most of the Rohingya have been forced out.

In 2011, a subsidiary of state oil giant Saudi Aramco and PetroChina, an arm of China’s state-owned CNPC, signed a deal to supply China’s southwestern Yunnan Province with up to 200,000 barrels per day of crude oil, just under half of the pipeline’s capacity.

Saudi Aramco did not immediately respond to a request for comment on shipments through the pipeline.

“One could argue that Saudi Arabia is less likely to be outspoken on this (Rohingya) issue because it actually relies on the Burmese government to protect the physical security of the pipeline,” said Bo Kong, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has written about China’s global petroleum policy.

The pipeline became operational in April following years of delays. It allows tankers to bypass the Strait of Malacca, cutting typical voyages by about seven days. A natural gas pipeline from Myanmar’s Shwe gas field runs alongside it.

Daniel Wagner, founder of consulting firm Country Risk Solutions, said Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its economic and political agenda in Mynamar and Southeast Asia, yet can still “claim to have stood the moral high-ground” by previously taking in refugees and providing financial aid.

“The important point is that natural gas and oil flows through Rakhine state,” he said.

Muslim-majority countries have been increasingly promising aid as the number of refugees swells in Bangladesh.

Azerbaijan, which also appears to be exporting crude to China through the pipeline, has ordered 100 tons of humanitarian aid to be dispatched.

Turkey, which like Iran jostles with Saudi Arabia to be the Islamic world’s center of influence, has mobilized millions of meals for refugees in Bangladesh and vowed to maintain a refugee camp there. It has also provided clothing, part of more than 150 tons of humanitarian aid supplied overall.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has sent at least 40 tons of aid. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently took a swipe at other Muslim countries with business interests in Myanmar, urging them to ramp up pressure on the government there.

“There are tens of Muslim countries and governments, some of whom have financial and economic transactions with them,” he said. “If we sit somewhere and engage in condemnations, what is the use of this?”

Images of burnt Muslim villages in Myanmar and of traumatized and often barefoot Rohingya women, children and elderly crossing into Bangladesh sparked protests in several Muslim countries.

A large rally was held to denounce the crisis in Indonesia, which is working to boost bilateral trade with Myanmar to $1 billion a year.

In Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, tens of thousands protested. Lawmaker Farhatullah Babar of the Pakistan People’s Party has pushed his government to suspend or at least slow the implementation of defense agreements worth hundreds of millions of dollars with Myanmar.

He told The Associated Press that an official responded to his request by saying Pakistan is pressing Myanmar through diplomatic channels to stop the violence.

“Pakistan should not be seen as strengthening a regime that is using weapons against its own people,” Babar said. He declined to elaborate on the details of the defense agreements.

A report by IHS Jane’s in February said Myanmar two years ago bought 16 JF-17 Thunder aircraft, co-developed by Pakistan and China. The defense weekly said Myanmar is now in advanced negotiations with Pakistan for licensed production of the fighter jet’s advanced third-generation variant.

The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation held an emergency session on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week to discuss the crisis.

The organization, headquartered in Saudi Arabia, issued a lengthy statement earlier this month expressing “grave concern” over the exodus of Rohingya. But unless its member states take tougher action on their own, there is little the OIC can do to pressure Myanmar’s government.

Jason von Meding, a specialist in disaster response at the University of Newcastle in Australia, said religious differences are not the only reason Rohingya are being forced out.

The government in Myanmar has designated 3 million acres in Rakhine state for development of the area’s rich mineral resources, he said. Farmers and vulnerable minority groups in the state have protested such schemes, calling them land grabs for which they receive little to no compensation.

“There’s no question that there is a lot of religious tension and ethnic division in society there,” von Meding said. “The problem is that it’s a convenient excuse for some people to get on with some very dirty political and business dealings behind the scenes.”


Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.


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